iTunes finally arrives in the UK

Apple's prices, catalogue and goodies revealed…

Apple's prices, catalogue and goodies revealed…

Apple's worst-kept secret - the imminent arrival of iTunes in Europe - was finally confirmed to the public at large today.

Prefaced by honky-tonk numbers and old-time crooning piped into a hall the size of Cornwall, the London launch this morning saw the announcement of a catalogue of 700,000 songs, plus videos and audio books finally accessible to the UK, German and French users.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs was in London today to preach the iTunes gospel, calling the newly launched online song shop "the best music jukebox in the world".

In the US, iTunes has a 70 per cent market share of legal music downloads and managed to shift over 85 million tracks across the pond in less than a year.

Apple is now hoping to repeat the same success in the three European countries to join the iTunes stable - with access to a potential 62 per cent of music sales in the continent and 23 per cent of global music sales.

With a rich new seam of teenagers' pocket money and Old World music lovers' wallets to plunder, Jobs was bullish about iTunes prospects. Despite Microsoft's and OD2 launching their own online song shop yesterday, Jobs was talking down rival efforts.

"Who iTunes really competes with is piracy," he said. "Piracy is a really big market and this is our competitor. To compete with piracy, you have to understand it and offer a better product."

And how does Jobs reckon he can lure the illegal downloaders into paying for their pop? By doing a better job, he says - offering "perfect" encoding done by the Apple folk. The spoddy element of the music fan will be sated in other ways - cover art available for download and printing, previews of every song, music videos and exclusive tracks.

And, Jobs said, using iTunes means "it's not stealing - it's good karma". Soul star Alicia Keys, also speaking at the launch, backed up the Apple CEO. "Supporting the artist you're discovering is an important thing," she said.

So what becomes of Apple's 99 cents a song pricing policy now the music shop has crossed the Atlantic? UK users will pay 79p a track, with most albums sold at £7.99. Music buyers in France and Germany will pay €0.99 a track with albums averaging €9.99.

But what do you get for your 79p? Playlists can be burned onto seven CDs, with each individual track able to be burned an unlimited amount of times. Tracks can be played on five computers - Mac or PC - which users can change at will, as well as added to an unlimited number of iPods.

Despite the download détente between Microsoft and iTunes, Jobs didn't miss an opportunity to have a dig at the boys at Redmond. "It's been said iTunes is the best Windows app ever written - if that's not the definition of irony, I don't know what is," he said.

Sharing music also figures big on the iTunes agenda - gift certificates of between £5 and £100 are available and iTunes users can inflict their personal music choices on each other via Wi-Fi networks.

Those without enthusiasm for the Top 40 are also catered for, with a choice of 5,000 audio books and 12,000 classical numbers and, for the young at heart, exclusive Disney and Pixar soundtracks.

Despite Jobs' claims of signing deals with the five major labels and "dozens of independents", not everyone is happy with iTunes repertoire.

The Association of Independent Music (AIM) announced that it wouldn't be represented in Apple's catalogue. Discussions between the two to include independent music - the likes of million-selling indie darlings Franz Ferdinand, Mr Scruff and the White Stripes - after talks on licensing terms came to nothing.

And while some major musicians will miss out on the opportunity to profit from the biggest online song shop opening, Jobs and co may be doing the same.

Apple's iTunes is no cash cow - but the iPods of various sizes that fly off the shelf along with the downloads are making a sizeable contribution to Apple's bottom line.

UK consumers are clamouring for the iPod mini - featured in Apple's promos for iTunes - but the dainty-drived music players are yet to arrive on these shores.

Rob Schoeben, senior VP of applications marketing, told silicon.com: "We're as anxious as you are to get the iPod mini in the UK" but added the company was still selling significant numbers of iPods.

The UK, France and Germany may have waited a long while for its Apple music bonanza but for the rest of Europe, there's still a few more months of waiting to come. Apple is currently working on creating an English language 'pan-EU' store for the rest of Europe, with an opening scheduled for October. Pricing will be the same, however, Jobs said.

Why has it taken iTunes so long to visit the UK? Schoeben said it took time to make sure the UK site comes equipped with all the same features as its US cousin.

"We wanted to make sure [the UK] had the same of everything… We could have done a half-assed job a while ago," he said.